Murkowski drafting bill to protect reliability under EPA rules

Source: Gabriel Nelson • E&E • Posted: Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has asked her staffers to work on legislation to ensure the electric grid remains stable under new U.S. EPA rules, she said this afternoon.

Murkowski has raised concerns in recent months about an expected wave of power plant retirements over the next few years, which will mainly be caused by stricter air pollution standards and market pressures such as low natural gas prices. She has slammed EPA and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, saying they have downplayed the risk of upgrading and retiring hundreds of coal-fired boilers over the next several years.

In a statement today, Murkowski signaled that her bill will contain a “safety valve” — a term denoting a plan that was proposed this summer by five electric grid overseers that cover much of the eastern United States. Their proposal would let power plants run for a period of time after EPA’s new air pollution rules take effect if there is not enough time to replace the plants’ services.

“If the EPA had done its work before charging ahead, we wouldn’t be facing the significant impacts that now seem much more likely and there would be no need to delay these rules,” Murkowski said in a statement. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

Some of the retirements would be caused by EPA’s new limits on mercury and other types of toxic emissions, which are expected to be finalized this month, and a recent set of limits on air pollution that drifts across state lines.

House Republicans, who have held several hearings to highlight the effects of EPA rules on the electric grid, passed legislation this fall that would block both sets of rules for more than a year and order the agency to rewrite them.


Most Democrats voted against the House bill and the White House pledged to veto it.


They have mostly lined up with public health groups and some power companies, which argue there is no reason to think the rules will lead to blackouts or brownouts. About 165 gigawatts of coal-burning power plants — roughly half of the U.S. coal fleet — added pollution controls between 2005 and 2010 without causing any problems, according to the Clean Air Task Force.


That group released a report this summer, written by former Pennsylvania Environment Secretary John Hanger, that proposed a rival “reliability-only dispatch” plan allowing retiring power plants to run if they are needed.


Hanger said the government should do whatever it takes to keep the electric grid stable, but extending the rules’ deadlines to let plants run at times when they are not key to reliability would lead to needless air pollution.


“Some of these plants seem to think they’ll be able to get an extra year and run pretty much all of the time,” Hanger said during a recent interview (Greenwire, Oct. 28).


EPA may also decide to come out with provisions of its own related to the electric grid when it finalizes its toxics rules, but an agency spokesman could not be reached to comment on that point this afternoon.